Sustainable Ski Resorts: Storm Clouds and Silver Linings

Among the millions of projects paused for a worldwide quarantine was a skiing and snowboarding road trip with an environmental cause. In January, we packed our campers with ski and snowboard gear and our phones with playlists and podcasts to travel the Rocky and Cascade Mountain slopes. We wanted to seek out the environmental actions resorts have taken to flatten their own curve—an upward trend of greenhouse gas emissions, trash build-up and development into wildlife habitats, which has just recently begun to slow down in the industry. 

With all ski resorts closed for the season, here’s our conclusion on the project (for now), #IdealishSnowLife

Most people who are drawn to snow-covered mountains care about nature on some level. But a dilemma arises between our desire to keep the experience wild versus convenient. Even our ability to explore these resorts using the Epic and Ikon passes held a compromise—supporting the corporate giants accused of reducing culture to a shell of itself, versus the opportunity to skip around slopes and follow the storms. 

When companies are making an attempt to do better, though, it should be recognized, even when it feels like there’s more work to be done. 

Evidence of sustainability appeared at almost every place we visited. Significant trends include committing to plastic-free goals, running on 100 percent renewable energy and finding unique ways to turn trash into fuel and fertilizer. It’s unprecedented for the most part—finally, a response to the elephant in the room that says, if you like it here, protect it. And that’s a wise elephant worth listening to. 

But still, how does something like Vail’s Epic Promise compare to their other vow to “the most significant snowmaking enhancement project in North America?” According to its website, the project will expand 500 acres for “a legendary early season experience” and “more predictable snow surfaces.”

Skiing green

After two months of working on #IdealishSnowLife, I made an impromptu stop at Big Sky, Mont. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to ride, now with the added goal of checking out their sustainability features. As I stared at the mega-screen video ads above the heated, eight-person, ergonomically-designed chair lift, I couldn’t help but wonder—how do you glorify the silver linings without ignoring the dark clouds? 

About a decade ago, skier Hal Clifford wrote about this in Downhill Slide. The book takes a cynical approach to the ever-expanding corporate ski model. It shames businesses using the charms of skiing to sell real estate, push wildlife out for more skiable terrain and ignore the interests of the communities they occupy. 

In Clifford’s opinion, we’re losing the wild culture that gave the sport roots to a Disneyland-like marketing scheme. Although his words were harsh and written years ago, some truths remain. 

“To a man and woman, everyone involved in developing the New Ski Villages will deny they are killing the goose that laid the golden egg—an oft-voiced fear regularly raised in the face of new development. They say their whole approach is to preserve and nurture that goose—call it nature, a sense of specialness, community, the beauty of the mountains—because it is what makes their particular ski town attractive,” Clifford writes. “Yet this insistence verges on the absurd when the very essence of what industrial-volume tourism corporations do is to standardize visitor experiences in towns that were attractive precisely because they weren’t standardized at all.” 

This monotony appears more common each winter at some ski areas. Retail shops in mountain villages look more and more like our malls at home. Empty McMansions line the bases. 

Perhaps the most concerning environmental impacts are on wildlife and water. Downhill Slide explains the unfortunate fate of elk squished into riverbeds too small to supply enough for the herds that once found plenty and so die of starvation and frequent freeway crashes. The book chronicles how even the endangered lynx didn’t stand a political chance against the persistent desire for skiable terrain expansion. Clifford also breaks down the issue with snowmaking—sucking rivers dry at essential spawning times and impacting fish and amphibians’ ability to reproduce. 

And yet, there are opportunities for change. Through this project, we hoped to highlight those nuances. With these small efforts, authenticity can grow, and skiing can be, even briefly, reunited with its roots—pure admiration for nature.

“The salvation of the ski industry lies not in more Potemkin villages, dewatered rivers, shopping arcades, on-mountain stock trading, and high-volume, high-speed lifts… (it’s) in affordability, authenticity, nature and simplicity,” Clifford says. 

Showing support for sustainable actions confirms skiers and snowboarders do actually care about nature, despite our love affair with convenience. And we can’t forget about the lesser-known and locally-owned ski areas keeping the culture alive. 

As far as the Epic, Ikon and other big pass destinations, here are the ones that stand out and deserve some credit for trying to do the right thing, even against a mountain of challenges. 

Crystal Mountain 

Located in the Cascade Range of Washington, with a summit of 6,872 feet, 2,600 acres and 80 runs, sits Crystal Mountain. It is the largest ski resort in the state and boasts views of nearby Mount Rainier at the top of the summit gondola lift. In 2018, it was sold to Alterra Mountain Company, making it an Ikon pass destination and increasing its popularity. Crystal has a strong environmental commitment. Their trail maps are printed on stone paper (zero trees, water, chemicals or dyes used in this process). Their recycling and compost initiative includes compostable dishware, eliminating plastic straws and bottles, and clearly marking where guests should throw their used items. There’s even a liquid waste to dump the rest of the coffee before tossing the cup in the compost bin. They have also built ponds to catch the runoff debris from the parking lots, which in turn keeps the surrounding streams and ecosystem a little cleaner.

Mount Bachelor 

Mount Bachelor is the sixth largest ski and snowboard area in the U.S. with a summit of 9,065 feet and 4,323 skiable acres. More importantly, it has some of the longest and most fun tree runs we have ever experienced. Located on a dormant volcano within the Deschutes National Forest, Bachelor (along with parent company POWDR) has become an industry leader in sustainable practices by reducing its carbon footprint by 50 percent in a decade. They have also created a program called “Play Forever,” in which they are committed to protecting the environment and inspiring adventure through partnerships, scholarships, training and empowering youth. At Mount Bachelor, this is demonstrated through a solar panel project at the Nordic Lodge, replacing all single-use products with reusable, LED lighting and recycling centers. Bachelor has also added two new grooming machines within the past couple of years, which are both more environmentally friendly than those prior.

Snowbasin Resort 

At first glance, it looks like what sets Snowbasin Resort apart is the extravagant lodge decor. Grand chandeliers, casino carpets, floor-to-ceiling stone fireplaces, marble (looking) bathroom counters and fancy coat rooms. Once approaching the peak, though, red rocks pierce through those last sprinkling of snowflakes that could hold on to their rugged faces, and it’s understood. Snowbasin has the terrain game to back up the flare. It’s no wonder their environmental commitment, though less majestically evident throughout the decor, is quite impressive. The resort is also home to a Discovery Center, educating visitors on the local wildlife. This includes owls, moose, trout, elk and their efforts to protect the dense forest canopy nesting sites of Cooper’s hawks. “Not just for the purposes of being ‘green,’ but because it’s a very smart business practice to conserve resources which lowers expenses on many things that can result in lowering resort overhead,” their website says. So far, Snowbasin has: 

  • Created priority parking for carpoolers
  • Turned compost into biogas fueling thousands of Utah homes
  • Used compost waste as fertilizer for their gardens
  • Tested a water boiler that also generates electricity for the resort

Copper Mountain 

A 2017 Finalist for the Summit Chamber’s Environmental Champion Award, Copper Mountain is focused on energy and natural resource conservation. The mountain is reducing and recycling waste, protecting the land and participating in the community. Copper has implemented a goal of zero waste through its food and beverage composting program, keeping an obscene amount of waste out of local landfills. They also have a quest to be bottle free and have installed bottle refilling stations around the resort. Their efforts to be more energy efficient include solar thermal heating at Copper’s Solitude Cafe, vertical axis wind turbines near patrol headquarters and replacement of all windows at the employee housing building to reduce heat-related consumption. The Copper Environmental Foundation was founded in 2007 with the long-term goal of supporting environmental initiatives within the community. Grants are eligible for just about anyone who proposes a project with an aspect of environmental education or action that has a positive impact on the environment. Copper is also part of POWDR and the Play Forever initiative.

Keystone Resort

If there was an award for the warmest mountain (as in, its attitude), it might go to Keystone Resort. The place has messages of kindness and kid-friendly activities sprinkled all over. Even with a summit towering at 12,408 feet, the mountain beams a welcoming presence. The love extends to the natural environment surrounding skiers and riders. The resort was an early-adopter in the National Ski Area Association’s Sustainable Slopes program—winning the 1996 Excellence in Water Conservation and 2002 Silver Eagle, Excellence in Waste Reduction and Recycling Awards. Last year, under the umbrella of all Vail Resorts, Keystone took part in the win of the Golden Eagle Award, handed only to those with the most eco-friendly slopestyle. Following Vail’s recent Epic Promise, it has committed to net-zero on emissions, waste to landfill and operating impact on forests and habitat. The accumulated promise across all resorts could be huge. But even on an individual level, it’s great to see ski areas making commitments to drastically reduce waste and emissions.

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